We believe the public understands why the Baltimore Police Department would move heaven and earth to catch the killer of one of its own officers. It’s human nature that the department poured massive resources into investigating the death of homicide Det. Sean Suiter last year, far more than would be expended on most if not all of the 342 other 2017 homicides. But it is also a rational policy, for at least two reasons. Police officers do a dangerous job, and they need to know that if something happens to them, the department will do whatever it can to bring the perpetrator to justice. And for the sake of deterrence, the department needs to make clear that harming an officer will lead to swift and certain consequences. Murdering an officer is and should be beyond taboo, and a massive manhunt for a cop killer reinforces society’s commitment to that notion.
But there have to be limits, and there is a strong case to be made that the Baltimore Police Department overstepped them when it put Harlem Park on a virtual lockdown for six days after Suiter was fatally shot there. Body camera video released in response to separate Public Information Act requests by The Sun and the ACLU backs up anecdotal complaints at the time that officers were demanding identification of everyone they encountered on the streets and denying entry to the neighborhood to those who could not or would not supply it. The department gave vague if indignant justifications for its actions at the time, saying the effort was necessary to preserve the crime scene, follow up on leads and to protect the community from what officials insisted was a dangerous killer on the loose. But none of that amounts to a justification for such a widespread and lengthy impingement on the residents’ 4th Amendment rights “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
The limits on the police’s ability to conduct checkpoint stops, interrogations and searches have been litigated extensively over the years, and the precedents don’t lend much support to the Baltimore Police Department’s actions in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that police cannot stop individuals and demand identification absent some particular suspicion. There are some exceptions to the rule — for example, border control checkpoints and roadside sobriety checkpoints — but also a prohibition on using such tactics for routine law enforcement purposes. In 2004, the high court upheld a police checkpoint in Illinois in which officers briefly detained motorists to seek information about an unsolved hit-and-run case along a particular stretch of roadway. Most recently, the federal appellate court for the District of Columbia blocked a D.C. police initiative that cordoned off a high-crime neighborhood and prohibited motorists from entering unless they could prove they lived there or had a particular reason to visit, such as employment or a religious or civic activity.
The ACLU has cited that last opinion to argue that Baltimore’s efforts were unconstitutional, but that may actually understate the case. The restrictions imposed by Baltimore police were greater — including not only stops of people driving into the neighborhood but of anyone entering or leaving. There is an element of similarity between the police’s effort in Baltimore to use its lockdown to further investigate a crime and the Illinois case. Indeed, had police merely flooded the neighborhood and asked everyone they encountered whether they had information about Suiter’s killing, there would be no issue at all. But impeding the free movement of people into and out of their own homes — even stopping the official liaison between the community and the team monitoring the department’s compliance with a federal consent decree related to unconstitutional policing, ironically enough — is another matter entirely.
And there’s one other thing: The lockdown was entirely ineffective. That’s not the criterion on which we base decisions on whether to respect constitutional rights, of course, but it’s worth noting that we are no closer to knowing the truth about Suiter’s killing today than we were then. Kevin Davis, who was police commissioner at the time, justified the lockdown the day it ended because officers had recovered a new piece of evidence from the crime scene that morning. But that could have been achieved without infringing on anyone’s liberty even for a moment, much less that of an entire community for nearly a week.
Commissioner Darryl De Sousa has tasked an Independent Review Board with evaluating the department’s handling of the case, including its actions in Harlem Park in the days after the shooting. He has promised that the group’s report on its “assessment of the facts and circumstances, and conclusion and findings of this tragic act” will be made public. But it’s not encouraging that the panel decided to close its first meeting during the discussion of that topic (and others) on the grounds that it could touch on an ongoing investigation and/or personnel matters related to compliance with department policies. Those justifications won’t change in the 90 to 180 days the review is expected to take. If the department is going to be transparent in its conclusions about its constitutionally suspect actions, it should start now.
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